FIRST HE tossed hisreceiver's gloves into a blue equipment bag on the floor. Then he flipped hiscleats on top of those. Piece by piece the rest of his uniform followed, untilHouston Texans wideout Andre Johnson at last reached into a dressing cubicle inthe visitors' locker room at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte and pulledout two footballs—one for each of his touchdown receptions in a 34--21 victoryover the Carolina Panthers on Sunday afternoon. Those he placed carefully intothe top of the satchel before a Texans equipment manager zipped it shut.
The fifth-year wideout pulled on his dress pants and watched as the bag wascarried out of the room toward a waiting cargo truck. "You know, peoplealways were asking me if I saved any of the footballs from my touchdowncatches," said Johnson, who came into the season with 17 career scoringreceptions. "I never did. But I'm saving them now."
He's got reason to.The Texans' victory gave the six-year-old franchise its first 2--0 start(Houston has never even been 2--1 after three games), and the situation getsheadier fast: The Texans host the Super Bowl champion Indianapolis Colts (also2--0) this Sunday at Reliant Stadium in Houston. "Six years to get to thispoint," said center Steve McKinney, 31, a Houston native and an originalTexan. "Things feel so much different around here."
The change beginsat quarterback, where failed five-year project David Carr has been replaced byMatt Schaub, Michael Vick's understudy for the last three seasons in Atlanta.Schaub has infused the Texans with uncommon poise and teamed with the dangerousJohnson to form one of the best new pass-and-catch combinations in the NFL.They have already connected 14 times for 262 yards (Johnson ranks fourth in theNFL in that category) and three touchdowns. Schaub has completed 36 of 50passes, with just one interception, and has the league's sixth-best quarterbackrating (111.4). It's also instructive that Schaub has been sacked just twice intwo weeks playing behind an offensive line that was maligned for allowing Carrto be sacked 41 times last year (and 249 times in five seasons). One reason isobvious: Schaub is quick and decisive in the pocket, and Carr was not.
"Schaub isphenomenal, man," says guard Fred Weary, another original Texan. "Hemakes plays, and he does not get rattled. And when the quarterback doesn't getrattled, nobody gets rattled."
Three days beforethe victory in Carolina, Houston owner Robert McNair stood next to a practicefield at the Texans' training complex, dressed in team workout gear (as is hiscustom during practices), and established precisely where the bar is set forSchaub. "We're hoping he can be a Tom Brady--type guy for thisfranchise," McNair said. "That's what we think of Matt."
The relationshipwas sealed on a Southern California golf course last March. Texans managementhad emerged from its fifth consecutive losing season in agreement on at leastone issue: "We had to get better play out of the quarterback position,"says general manager Rick Smith. When it became apparent that the Falcons mightbe willing to deal Schaub, the Houston brain trust studied him. And liked whatit saw.
Coach Gary Kubiakmade one request before Smith and McNair pulled the trigger on a trade."I'd really like to spend a day with this kid, get to know what hethinks," Kubiak told Smith. Kubiak and Schaub arranged to play golftogether at a course in Orange County, south of Los Angeles, one day afterSchaub had played in an event hosted there by his agent, Joby Branion. For nineholes, Kubiak and Schaub talked business. The quarterback reminded the coachthat he'd been selected out of Virginia in the third round in 2004, in the samedraft as Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger, all of whom hadbecome starters. "I see myself as a starter in this league too," Schaubtold Kubiak. "I want my chance."
The coach was sold.They played the final nine holes for fun, and a $20 stroke-play bet laid downby Kubiak. Schaub won, and within 12 hours of Kubiak's triple bogey on the 18thhole the Texans had dealt their second-round draft picks in 2007 and 2008 toAtlanta for Schaub; the teams also agreed to swap first-round picks in the '07draft. It was a move that would prove fateful for the Falcons when Vick'ssuspension left them with the erratic Joey Harrington at quarterback.
Schaub attacked hisnew job. He'd been a high school star in suburban Philadelphia and the mostproductive quarterback in Virginia history. Yet with the Falcons he'd had toglean experience from tiny nuggets of action: He started just two games inthree years, and Vick took nearly every snap in practice. "With the kind ofathlete Mike was, I knew that if he was healthy I was never going to play,"says Schaub. "The challenge was for me to get those reps in my brain."Schaub would stay after practice and stand on the field, game script in hand,visualizing every play in the game plan. He would watch film as if he were thestarter and arrive at the stadium on Sunday convinced he'd play.
Atlanta veteransnoticed. "He was savvy beyond his years," says Buffalo Bills wideoutPeerless Price, who played with the Falcons in 2003 and '04. "[Fellowreceivers] Brian Finneran and Dez White and I always used to say it was just amatter of opportunity for this guy. Right from the start, we all thought hewouldn't be there long. He was too good."
In late March,Schaub moved to Houston (his fiancée, Laurie Flynn, would follow; they live 10minutes from the stadium and plan to be married next February) and begansoaking up Kubiak's West Coast--style offense, blessedly similar to what Schaubran at Virginia. "Some days I got to the office at five in the morning andMatt was already here," says offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, formerlythe Green Bay Packers' coach. "He was on a different clock from all theother players. He was working coaches' hours."
DURING THROWINGsessions that began in early April, Schaub forged a bond with his newteammates, most notably the sublimely talented Johnson, who brings a rare andlethal combination of size (6'3", 222 pounds) and speed. (He was a Big East60- and 100-meter champion at Miami.) Johnson had caught 103 passes in 2006 andascended to the highest level of NFL receivers. What he needed next was to usehis stats as currency to buy wins.
Johnson's path tothe league was markedly different from Schaub's. He was raised by a single mom,Karen Johnson, in tough Carol City, Fla. When Andre finished eighth grade,Karen yanked him out of school in Carol City and drove him 30 minutes each wayto Miami Senior High, en route to her post-office job. "My mother didn'tlike my friends and some of the things I was doing, and my grades weredown," says Johnson. "I didn't want to leave, but she gave me nochoice." Long after the Carolina game was finished, Karen greeted the olderof her two sons outside the stadium and embraced him. She wore a white Texans'number 80 game jersey with johnson stamped above the number.
A star at MiamiSenior, Johnson was recruited by Butch Davis to stay home and play for theHurricanes. "He was not only big [6'2", 195 in high school] butelectrifyingly fast," says Davis. "We had talented players ahead ofhim, but we tried to get him on the field as quickly as possible." Johnsonplayed as a third-year sophomore on Miami's 2001 national-title team and caught20 touchdown passes in just three seasons.
More important, helearned passion from older wideouts such as Santana Moss and Reggie Wayne, whoembraced the team tradition of mentoring one's positional heirs. "In highschool I was just the best athlete," says Johnson. "I never worked.Then I get to Miami, and the older guys are working harder than the young guys.It rubbed off on me. I started going to the weight room. I started working onmy routes."
In Sunday's winover Carolina, a team considered a potential NFC representative in the SuperBowl, Schaub and Johnson helped turn the game around during a 12-minute stretchbridging the first and second quarters.
First it was Schaubwho steadied the Texans' sideline after Carolina took a 14--0 lead less than 10minutes in. Houston had gifted Carolina the second of the scores, when tightend Owen Daniels fumbled after catching a pass deep in Texans territory."Any time in the last five years that this team got down 14--0 on the road,everybody would have been pretty shook up," said McKinney. "But Mattwas just telling everybody, 'Don't get down; we'll chip away at it.' There arequarterbacks in this league who when they walk into the huddle, you can sensethey're going to do the job. I was with Indianapolis [from 1998 to 2001], and Igot that sense with Peyton Manning. I get it with Matt, too."
The Texans neededjust three plays to score on the ensuing possession, and it was theirQB-wideout combo that did the damage. Schaub hit Johnson on a 33-yard sidelinebomb, then two plays later found Johnson on a quick slant that became a 31-yardtouchdown. Midway through the second quarter, Houston tied the game whenJohnson got a free release from the Carolina nine-yard line and ran pastPanthers middle linebacker Dan Morgan for an easy catch at the back of the endzone. Both scores came on the flawless execution of well-designed plays. Texansbrass expect that to become a Schaub trademark.
"Here's thething about Matt," says Sherman. "As a quarterback he never guessesthat something will be open. He always has a reason for what he does. He seesthe field, anticipates movement and shows an awful lot of maturity for somebodyso young."
LATE SUNDAYafternoon Johnson moved slowly out of the dressing room, the pain from asprained left knee soothed by the balm of victory. "I sure hope it's O.K.next week," he said. "The defending champions are coming in."
Fifteen feet awaySchaub sat in a corner, grinding through a series of radio interviews asproducers handed him cellphones and BlackBerries. He has prepared for this roletoo, the Face of the Franchise. "I studied what Mike went through with themedia and the public [pre-dogfighting]," says Schaub. "I saw goodthings, and I saw bad things. I imagined how things should be done when I wasin that role. One thing I know for sure: If you win, you've got to come backand prove it again next week."
Leaving now,pulling a rolling suitcase behind him, playing his role. For three years Schaubwaited to call an NFL team his own. Now that team is unbeaten in two games,demanding respect. "What am I doing with that?" he asks. "Lookingfor number three."
Young and old,established and just hitting their stride, NFL receivers are off to a faststart. Of the league's top 10 in receiving yards, nine—including Houston'sAndre Johnson—have established career highs for yardage through the first twogames of a season. Here's how the 2007 numbers compare with previous bests forthose eight.
[This articlecontains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]
CHAD JOHNSON, Bengals (above)
RANDY MOSS, Patriots
STEVE SMITH, Panthers
ANDRE JOHNSON, Texans
JERRICHO COTCHERY, Jets
JAVON WALKER, Broncos
JOEY GALLOWAY, Buccaneers
ANTWAAN RANDLE EL, Redskins
BRAYLON EDWARDS, Browns
"Schaub is PHENOMENAL, man," says Weary."He makes plays and does not get rattled. And when the quarterback doesn'tget rattled, nobody does."
Former player and scout Bucky Brooks's keys to victory for every team, everyweek.
ONLY AT SI.COM
Photograph by Bob Rosato
SHOUT OUT The unbeaten Texans love Schaub's take-charge attitude—and his 111.4 passer rating after two games doesn't hurt.
POINTS TAKEN With three TD catches via Schaub (8), Johnson (right) already is halfway to his previous season high.
[See caption above]